When staff and students cannot come to campus, the loss of in-person programming labs can cause a significant setback in learning computer programming, particularly for beginners. This has a knock-on effect on student retention in such courses. We offer blended learning, making use of technology to deliver quality teaching to students on-site and online, simultaneously. In particular, we focus on designing courses to be as inclusive as possible, promoting student participation and equal opportunity for all learners.
Key blended learning challenges
To do this, we focus on three critical challenges. First, how best to teach computer programming in English to students for whom English is a second language. Second, how to ensure beginner programming students get sufficient practice at writing code and receive effective feedback on their work. Third, how to improve student retention and stimulate classroom engagement in an online or blended setting, making sure we get sufficient feedback from students during lectures where we lack the visual cues of an on-site class.
To overcome the language barrier: We maintain an online interactive glossary of technical terms, alongside English definitions, updated every week. The technology allows teachers and students to co-create and co-edit the glossary content any time and anywhere. This student-centred instructional design helps students acquire the specific terminology used in computer programming through active enquiry-based learning, ensuring they are learning the language of programming alongside the programming language.
We also implement fun, gamified English language activities using Moodle Quizzes and H5P Activities. One example asks students to find words relevant to a particular lecture in a letter grid puzzle game. This English language support helps to meet the needs of a diverse student body typical of transnational institutions like ours.
Code writing practice: To ensure students have sufficient practice at writing code, we provide scaffolded learner support, progress checks and feedback through a form of continuous assessment. Every week, students are given a small number of short programming exercises to complete. These tasks can be formative or summative. For students to receive prompt feedback, we make use of “Coderunner”, software that automatically checks a student’s work. This allows students to test in real time whether their proposed solution is correct or not, and to fix any mistakes they might have made. Students can therefore stay continuously engaged through a personalised and efficient learning process instead of waiting weeks to get feedback from their instructor.
Additional feedback is provided via weekly group review sessions to support social constructivist learning. Students are split into small groups and asked to work together on a few questions relating to the weekly programming tasks. These questions are prepared by the teacher based on specific difficulties encountered by students that week. We also focus on “soft programming skills” such as coding style or expected program behaviour, so that students are equipped to meet industry standards and expectations in their future careers.
Boosting student retention: To improve student retention and stimulate classroom engagement, we live poll students using “JazzQuiz”. This enables both on-site and online students to give instantaneous feedback and allows teachers to gauge student attentiveness and understanding of the course material. The teacher can then adjust their pace of delivery, perhaps taking time to repeat certain sections that appear to have been poorly understood. We conducted action research on this, and showed that students who had a better understanding of the educational value of JazzQuiz were more comfortable using the technology and performed better in their studies. Through questionnaires and in-depth interviews with hundreds of students, our study summarised five teaching benefits related to university students’ participation in classroom quizzes: retaining attention, increasing opportunities for interaction, inspiring self-actualisation, identifying knowledge gaps, and building knowledge.
These solutions are transferable to many disciplines beyond computer programming, and offer benefits for anyone in academia concerned about student engagement and retention in large online or blended courses.
Erick Purwanto is a teaching fellow and Thomas Selig is an assistant professor, both in the department of computing, Na Li is an associate professor of practice in the department of educational studies, all at Xi’an Jiaotong – Liverpool University.
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